Netflix’s new documentary delivers on its promise of presenting Robbie Williams as you’ve never seen him before, and not just in showing the era-defining cheeky chappy, now rounding on 50, mostly in bed, lounging around in his pants. Its director, Joe Pearlman, brings together hours of behind-the-scenes archival footage, much of it never seen by Williams, and screens it to him on his laptop for his response.
In a poignant video diary from 2007, Williams can be seen alone, under the influence of drugs, reading online comments out loud. He grimaces as he shares one particularly harsh remark: “Robbie Williams is music for people who don’t feel.” He then adds, with a hint of resignation, “Rob is a showbiz chancer – yeah, I am.” The pain in his eyes is evident as he continues, “Robbie Williams is a shit joke.”
The story – of a star being built up, torn down and left to piece a life together from the wreckage – is by now familiar. Pearlman has made it his primary subject, having made similar retrospective films with the 80s boyband Bros, the now-grown cast of Harry Potter, and the Scottish songwriter Lewis Capaldi.
Once again, we see a clear depiction of the negative impact of tabloid journalism and the effects of constantly being under its watchful eye. Williams stands out from Pearlman’s other subjects due to his complex public image – he sought attention while also rejecting it.
According to current standards of deserving empathy, Williams is considered to be in a lower position due to his perceived protection from privilege: being heterosexual, Caucasian, male, and physically able. Despite this, he has displayed struggles under the expectations placed on him, despite being a natural performer.
Williams was trailed by sometimes 300 paparazzi at a time, in double-decker buses and helicopters. The doco shows him on the phone to the Sun, challenging their “Stroppy Williams” headline. Later he rails against the paper’s showbiz columnist Victoria Newton from a Jacuzzi.
“I used to see in the newspapers every day how terrible of a person I was,” Williams recalls. Whenever I tried to interact with the media or play their game, it always ended up backfiring. For instance, when I released the song Angels, which was well-received by most, I was still criticized for being too mainstream and pandering to the crowd. Then, when I attempted something new that I genuinely believed in at the time, like with Rudebox, I was mocked and ridiculed.”
The prolonged “hatefest” clearly erodes Williams’s self-belief. Often, in footage from the Rudebox era, he looks like a hunted animal. “No matter what I do, no matter what I write, no matter how I sing it, no matter what I say – in my home country, the press are going to fucking hate me,” he says.
Recently, there has been a great deal of reflection on the harshness of celebrity culture in the 2000s. This includes Britney Spears discussing the relentless pressure from the paparazzi that led to her breakdown, as well as Posh and Becks addressing the relentless harassment they faced during their relationship in their Netflix documentary.
After reading articles from that era, I was disturbed by the unfiltered hostility written under a name and photo. Despite the belief that we now reside in a more compassionate society, I remain unconvinced. While there are some guidelines in place compared to 20 years ago, such as the discussion of famous individuals’ weight (which Williams had to confront), it is often disguised as false concern or a disguised compliment.
Although we have addressed the most severe attacks, it is not enough to counteract the immense size of the current arena and the intense speed of the game. Social media has given voice not only to journalists, but to everyone – and while the press may be less likely to openly criticize celebrities, X (previously known as Twitter) does not hesitate to do so.
It is difficult not to believe that our media and entertainment sectors actively diminish our ability to empathize. Seeing Williams hurt by negative or dismissive assessments of his art reminded me of the times I have casually criticized public figures. It is unsettling to recognize how many of them are no longer alive, especially considering the relatively short time I have been working in this industry.
When leaving comments about celebrities in public spaces, such as newspapers or social media, it may feel like you are standing up to them. After all, they are wealthy, well-known, and have willingly opened themselves up to criticism in their chosen profession and public lifestyle. However, is this truly the case? And is the potential gain worth the potential harm?
I would not want to reside in a society where silence is the only option if we cannot speak kindly. These documentaries serve as a warning, showing the harsh reality that show business is not suitable for those who are sensitive or easily affected. However, there is a need for balance – how much should we expect individuals to endure for our own enjoyment? These are celebrities, not political figures. There are plenty of other targets for our collective criticism, where taking action could bring about a more just and equitable world.
Our fascination with celebrities, whether positive or negative, has limited positive influence and significant potential for personal harm.
It is not difficult to imagine a heartbreaking conclusion to Williams’s tale, however, the series concludes on a positive tone with Williams being healed and content (although still too emotionally scarred to go back to the UK), a loving spouse, and a father of four. But there are moments where it is effortless to envision a sorrowful ending. Undoubtedly, he would then receive touching accolades. Currently, he is receiving two-star evaluations for being “self-indulgent”. Yet, if he is self-absorbed, it simply mirrors our fixation.